Successful change isn’t just listening to the most powerful voice

3rd February 2022

Successful change isn’t just listening to the most powerful voice


Carrying out business analysis and business change can be tricky.  There are usually a varying range of stakeholder perspectives on what should be done, typically with different stakeholders having subtly different views on why change is necessary in the first place.  It might be tempting to navigate through this complexity by simply focussing on the most powerful voices in the room (after all, they might be seen as the ones that hold the ‘legitimate power’ to make a decision) yet to do so would usually be a mistake.  Change is only really successful when it is delivered in a way that all key stakeholders can accept.  We have probably all seen projects which are deployed “on time” and “on budget”, only to later discover that the solution was a complete failure as people on the ground hated it (as they were never properly engaged). Let’s face it, many decisions on projects are made in comfortable conference rooms or Zoom calls miles away from the ‘shop floor’ where the change will actually be implemented, sometimes the decisions are even made by people who have no idea how the work is actually done!

As a generalisation, we could perhaps propose that one factor that predicts the likelihood of success (or otherwise) is the proportion of stakeholder groups that have been properly considered and have participated in that change.  In most contexts, changes that operate in a vacuum with little stakeholder input are unlikely to succeed.  These are typically unpopular initiatives where people feel that change is “done to them” rather than “done with them”.  There are occasional situations where this might be necessary but it is usually best avoided.  On the flip side we could predict that when an initiative has involved the right stakeholders at the right times, it has far more chance of succeeding.

One challenge is determining who the ‘right’ stakeholders are, and this is an area where it’s important to spread the net wide. One angle that warrants particular attention is voices that aren’t being heard but should be.  These voices tend to fall into two broad categories:

  1. Stakeholders who have, for whatever reason, been missed or willingly disregarded
  2. Stakeholders who are involved but whose views are being summarily dismissed without proper consideration


Plugging the gap

Firstly, it’s important to ensure that all relevant stakeholder groups have a place at the table.  Some will need to be represented regularly and personally, others might be represented less frequently and by proxy.  A retail bank, for example, cannot interview every one of its customers prior to making a change to its T&Cs.  Instead, it might carry out focus groups and have an internal stakeholder championing the ‘voice of the customer’ based on the relevant customer research.

There are many stakeholder identification and categorisation techniques out there, but one I come back to time and time again is the stakeholder rainbow.  This simple tool tends to cultivate broad conversations about who is affected by a change (rather than limiting the conversation to who is involved or influential).  This is a great place to start in considering which stakeholder groups need to be involved, and which are perhaps currently being missed.

The second issue, of stakeholders who are involved and are speaking up is more tricky.  This is where as change practitioners we have an ethical imperative to speak up and amplify their voices.  Particularly when we are acting as a facilitator in a meeting or a workshop we have the ability to pause and reflect on statements that are made.  Imagine that a call-centre worker makes a suggestion in a workshop, but a senior manager immediately talks over them, dismissing it in a passive-aggressive way and then tries to move the conversation on.  That call centre worker will probably feel completely ignored and might even stop raising points.  Yet, if the change is going to be implemented in the call centre, their insight and views on how things really work might be the very thing that makes the project a success!

It is important to look out and spot these power plays, and call them out.  A diplomatic “Before we move on, I don’t think we fully discussed Jayne’s point—Jayne, could you elaborate, or do you feel we’ve discussed this sufficiently?” will allow the stakeholder to elaborate if they feel necessary. Facilitating is a role where we need to be firm but fair, ensuring that all stakeholders get sufficient airtime.  Although we might often think of facilitation being something that happens in meetings, in reality it happens throughout projects. After all, the project is ultimately facilitating change within the organisation. As change practitioners it’s important that we regularly scan the stakeholder landscape and ensure the relevant stakeholders are involved and are being heard.

Project teams that are able to do this are more likely to have happy stakeholders and change that actually ‘sticks’ (and therefore delivers benefits) when it is delivered.  And who wouldn’t want that!?

by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert